Slow modes of global temperature variability and their impact on climate sensitivity estimates

Robert C. Jnglin Wills, Kyle C. Armour, David S. Battisti, Cristian Proistosescu, Luke A. Parsons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Internal climate variability confounds estimates of the climate response to forcing but offers an opportunity to examine the dynamics controlling Earth’s energy budget. This study analyzes the time-evolving impact of modes of low-frequency internal variability on global-mean surface temperature (GMST) and top-of-atmosphere (TOA) radiation in preindustrial control simulations from phase 6 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6). The results show that the slow modes of variability with the largest impact on decadal GMST anomalies are focused in high-latitude ocean regions, where they have a minimal impact on global TOA radiation. When these regions warm, positive shortwave cloud and sea ice–albedo feedbacks largely cancel the negative feedback of outgoing longwave radiation, resulting in a weak net radiative feedback. As a consequence of the weak net radiative feedback, less energy is required to sustain these long-lived temperature anomalies. In contrast to these weakly radiating high-latitude modes, El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a large impact on the global energy budget, such that it remains the dominant influence on global TOA radiation out to decadal and longer time scales, despite its primarily interannual time scale. These results show that on decadal and longer time scales, different processes control internal variability in GMST than control internal variability in global TOA radiation. The results are used to quantify the impact of low-frequency internal variability and ENSO on estimates of climate sensitivity from historical GMST and TOA-radiative-imbalance anomalies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8717-8738
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021


  • Climate sensitivity
  • Climate variability
  • Energy budget/balance
  • Feedback
  • Multidecadal variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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